Threatened by the advance of capital, communities and social movements fight for the preservation of water resources in Brazil

World Water Day, celebrated on 22 March, provides an arena for debate about the importance of guaranteeing access to quality water and basic sanitation for the whole population


By Rafael Oliveira

When walking with Dona Raimunda in her garden, in the rural community of Gleba Tauá in the municipality of Barra do Ouro in Tocantins, she tells us how water used to be abundant in her territory.  Childhood memories of when she drank water directly from a crystalline stream or when she played in the caves today compete with a different reality.

In an indignant voice, this lady, who is nearly 80 years old andwas born and raised in the region, is emphatic when she says that after the arrival of soy monoculture and extensive cattle breeding in the vicinity, various aspects of life began to be more difficult.  As well as the devastation of the Cerrado and the constant gun violence aimed at expelling them from their lands, Dona Raimunda and her family have lived for almost 20 years with the destruction of something that is sacred to the peasant tradition: water!

Poison, thrown out of planes and from machinery on the ground over the immense soy fields that have almost penetrated Dona Raimunda’s territory, has already contaminated the springs and rivers that crisscross the Gleba Tauá territory, a federal area that currently contains about 90 other peasant families.  According to a report from the Ministry of Agriculture, in 2020, the Federal Government approved the registration of 493 toxic pesticides.  This is 4% more than the number registered in 2019, when 474 types were approved.  By February this year, a further 67 toxic pesticides had been authorized for the Brazilian market, according to a publication in the Daily Gazettefrom the Ministry of Agriculture.

Dona Raimunda has already lost count of the number of animals that have died after drinking water from a certain stream. Complaints from environmental bodies and the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministério Público Federal: MPF) have not, so far, been effective in halting this practice, which poisonsthe biodiversity and the people who inhabit it.

Water is a human right

Globally, the right to water is expressed in a United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 2010. According to this document, the UN recognizes that “clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights. The Resolution calls upon States and international organisations to provide financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all”.

But this UN resolution has never arrivedon Maré Island – near Salvador (Bahia) – where approximately 10 thousand people are organized into 11 quilombola communities and where artisanal fishing is the main way of life. “We suffer significant environmental and structural racism.  We are very close to the capital but the public authorities do not see us.  Several generations have lived and live here, and today we still don’t have sanitation.  Water and electricity have only just arrived.  I am 50 years old and I have lived this my entire life, imaginemy parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents,” said Marizelha Lopes leader of the Movement of Artisanal Fishermen and Women (Movimento de Pescadores e Pescadoras Artesanais: MPP/Bahia).

Despite being surrounded by water, Marizelha’s community no longer enjoys what was once plentiful.  Since the 1950s, the region has been taken over by large-scale enterprises that have upset the territory’s natural equilibrium.  “Less than 2 km from here are a refinery and the Aratu Port.  We are at the bottom of the Bay of All Saints and at certain times the wind favours us, while at others it carries the contamination from these enterprises.  Many people from the community have serious problems with chronic allergies, skin problems and, above all, cancer”, she reported.

Currently, new infrastructure work, which has directly affected Maré Island, isunderway; this is the responsibility of the Bahia Terminais S.A. company.  Despite a court decision suspending the construction of a port terminal in the Maré Island region, the company maintains its equipment and machinery, destroying part of the mangrove remnants in the territory.

“In the middle of a pandemic, in September last year, they destroyed more than 1 hectare of mangroves.  When we found out, the Institute for the Environment and Water Resources (Instituto do Meio Ambiente e Recursos Hídricos: INEMA) had already licensed the Bahia Terminais project.  This is promoted by the State government,” recalls Marizelha, who also confirmed that the ongoing and irregular work has been reported to the State Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministério Público Estadual: MPE).


Common good

Violence against water sources, rivers, streams and springs goes beyond poisoning by toxic pesticides or the construction of large-scale infrastructure work.  According to Andreia Neiva, activist from the Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens: MAB), the privatization of water, which is going through the National Congressin the approval of Bill 4162/2019, known as the “new sanitation framework”,principally threatens the mostsocially vulnerable families.

The Bill plans to hand over the country’s entire sanitation sector to the private sector, and to appropriate the natural water reserves in Brazil.  “This is of very grave concern.  If today there is huge inequality in water access in Brazil, the tendency is for this to get worse. [The private companies] will not want to expand the structure, or the supply and sanitation networks in places that do not yield profit,” notes Andreia. According to a 2019 report from the National Sanitation Information System (Sistema Nacional de Informações sobre Saneamento: SNIS), 35 million people in Brazil do not have access to treated water.

On 17 March, the Congress maintained the Federal Government’s veto of article 16 of the Bill providing for the extension of existing contracts for approximately 30 more years. If this article is maintained, the fight against the privatization of the waters would gain momentum in an attempt to reverse the project, but 292 deputies voted in favour of the veto, defeating the 169 who voted against it.  “What we are arguing is that water is a common good for the people.  That it should be managed by the public authorities, but that we should participate, this is the only possible way to guarantee the people’s sovereignty.  Water cannot and should not be transformed into a commodity,” she declared.


To preserve the sacred

When not viewed as a commodity that can be dominated, exploited and commercialized like any other product, water overflows with subjective, affective, spiritual, cultural and religious elements, far beyond the understanding of capital.

Taken as sacred by traditional communities, water is directly tied to a people’s identity and existence.

“This relationship with the waters and the mangroves is ancestral, profound, we suffer when we see it destroyed.  You cannot disconnect nature from us.  You cannot see the environment without us, for we are its guardians,” Marizelha Lopes asserts.

In this context, there is another important point to consider: the feminine and the fundamental role of women, both in relation to the maintenance of the wealth of nature and in the direct connection between women and the waters, in the central role they still play in the day to day lives of their families.

In relation to this, Andreia draws attention to the fact that “in the rural communities, where there is no access to running water, the task of supplying the home, of daily chores in the home, falls to women.  They are the ones who cover long distances to collect water to wash clothes, to make food and clean the house.  This is a very heavy burden.  There are many violations of the rights of women, in both the city and the rural areas, and all of this is invisible.”

For quilombola Marizelha, in the midst of such an unfavourable context, there is little to celebrate on March 22, World Water Day. “We are worried about all the intervention, the contamination.  The house of Iemanjá has never been so dirty.  Every year these companies commit an environmental crime,” she protests.  Although there is little to celebrate, she declares that there remains much struggle and much to do. “We are hopeful in ourselves, so much so that on Water Day we will perform an act against these enterprises.  We will take the force of the waters, of the Orixás, of the enchanted, of nature.  I really believe that nature will react,” she concludes.

In the face of these injustices, CESE reasserts its commitment to the defence and guarantee of water as a fundamental human right and supports initiatives from the grassroots movement in defence of the waters.  The words ofDona Raimunda, Marizelha Lopes and Andreia Neiva, grassroots fighters and guardians of this precious good for the whole of humanity,fill us with energy and feed our hope for a fair world and for Good Living.